Lighting Effects Make
Model Railroads Come Alive

 I stopped procrastinating about adding lighting effects to South Point on my Utopia Northern HO railroad. I had been stalling because a lot of the wiring has to be done beneath the benchwork and it's awkward to work under there at the best of times.

Some of the holes beneath the buildings would be difficult to reach because South Point is over 5 feet above the floor and Underhill North hidden staging is under the upper benchwork.

Furthermore, many of the buildings did not have lights installed when I built them and were not partitioned. Few had interior details.

The first job was to upgrade the buildings with interior partitions and to add some interior window treatments. Fortunately, I had installed some grain-of-wheat bulbs in the Magnusum kits and had glued in blinds cut from colored paper. I started adding details, including people, to the other buildings.

I had been inspired by several articles on lighting layout scenes and adding lighting effects in the June, 2009 issue of Model Railroader magazine.  These articles cover using bulbs, placing lights, wiring, and choosing a power supply.

My first task was to see what voltage I had used for the buildings I had wired years ago. I first used an AA battery to see if any of the bulbs were 1.5 volts. If they didn't light I used a DC power pack and a meter to creep up the voltage. Most of them turned out to be 12 volts. A few may have been 14 volts. What I couldn't tell was the amperage draw.

Grain-of-wheat and the bulbs from Miniatronics are usually around 30 milliamps. The 14 volt bulbs could be as high as 80 milliamps. Some of the screw-in bulbs I had used on control panels probably drew more current.

You need to keep track of how much current you're drawing. I was using an inexpensive DC power pack and some leftover transformers in the 300 to 400 milliamp range. By the time I had installed a bunch of lights I had totally fried a Miniatronics transformer by exceeding its rating.

It didn't have a fuse or circuit breaker when we opened it up. The transistors were blown. There are schematics on the Internet for building a universal power supply. I still use older DC power supplies that I don't need for running trains now that I've switched to DCC. 

Even a small city like South Point can soak up a lot of juice!Here are a few tips I've picked up over the years:

  • Check buildings for light leaks along seams.
  • Paint interiors black if light glows through the walls.
  • Add diagonal partitions so you can't see through the building.  Use black cardboard, matte board or something similar.
  • Wire bulbs in parallel, not series so if one burns out they don't all stop working.
  • Set the voltage below the maximum. If using 12 volts, set around 10 volts. Bulbs will last longer.
  • Use miniature two-prong connectors between the building light(s) and the wiring bus. This way you can unplug the building if you have to change a bulb.
  • Add the amperages of the bulbs so as not to exceed the rating of your power supply (as I did).
  • Use the same size bulbs and supplier as often as possible. It's easier to keep track.
  • Write down what you used. Write it inside on the the walls or tag the wires.

After I started I  added some chase lights, neon billboards and some sound modules. This occupied me off and on for several years. Here are a couple of photos taken over Christmas, 2009. The photos reveal I had a big seam in the backdrop to fill. That was another project. This layout has now been dismantled and I am busy building a new UNRR in a new home.

Initial lighting effects at South Point
model building lighting

Dusk comes to the city
model building lighting

Incidentally, the cover shot on my website is of the former South Point business district at night.

Most of the bulbs I used were 12 volt grain-of-wheat bulbs (about 1/8", 3 mm). However, in the photo above I used a 1.5 volt grain-of-rice bulb above the freight door at Bradley's.  I added a 560 ohm resistor to one lead so that I could connect that light to the other 12 volt bulbs. 

I used the smaller bulb so it didn't look too large above the door.  Some of the buildings simply have a bulb underneath the building instead of inside the building. 

I've seen modelers use Christmas tree bulbs to do this. 

All wires go to terminal strips below South Point and from there to the power supplies.

Another method is to use fiber optics from a bulb hidden under the benchwork. This method is good for automobile lights and similar purposes. Sometimes an LED will work. Be sure to add a resistor in this case. 

A method described in the Model Railroader article that I have not tried is copper foil tape as used for stained glass windows. You can solder to it.  I have used a length of Code 55 or Code 70 rail as a common return to bulbs in a building. I did this under the freight canopy on Tuckahoe Produce.

Lamp shades can be made with a #2 washer and a grain-of-wheat bulb. I have some metal shades left over from Campbell kits. Brawa makes an assortment of street lights that plug into spring-loaded sockets. I used two-prong plugs for the ones in the top photo above.

There are many commercial products for street lights, traffic lights, etc. Check the Walthers catalog or the selection at your hobby shop or online store.

Experiment. If you don't like the effect, change it. Lighting effects certainly make scenes come alive. They're worth the extra effort. I was happy with the results at South Point and intend to use the buildings again on the new layout.

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